Defenders of gun rights seize on the Second Amendment as a prohibition against laws that would limit the right “to bear arms.” With that they fuse gunmetal to liberty and declare the two inseparable: To be free is to be at liberty to buy guns – as many as you want, as powerful as they come and with no limits on the amount of ammunition, including semi-automatic rifle magazines that can hold as many as 100 lightweight bullets that enter a body at three times the speed of bullets from a common handgun, a force that rips organs, arteries and nerves and can leave an exit wound a foot wide.
This idea of gun freedom is tied to a constitutional amendment adopted in 1791, but its application is relatively recent. Prior to the late 20th century, the government routinely controlled guns. For instance, the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre of 1929 – the Chicago gangster slaughter of seven men using the new Thompson submachine gun – created public outrage that led to the National Firearms Act of 1934. The new law imposed registration requirements and a $200 tax (equal to $3,500 today) on the purchase of short-barreled rifles and automatic weapons like the “Tommy Gun.” The law was supported by the National Rifle Association.
Today, imposing such national restrictions appears to be unthinkable. Relentless NRA pressure on Congress has made it impossible to pass even modest new limits on guns. Congress has been unmoved by the slaughter of 20 first-graders and six adults at Sandy Hook Elementary in Newtown, Conn., the mass shootings since and even the shooting of two of its own members.
Voices from Parkland
Yet now comes Parkland and, improbably, a chance to crack the absolutism that makes guns and freedom one. Teenagers who survived the Feb. 14 attack at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla., are questioning the bullet-riddled world they’ve been handed. They are asking why part of their education includes active-shooter drills and why their estranged former classmate was allowed to buy the assault-style rifle he apparently used to kill 14 students and three adults and wound 14 others.
In response, Florida lawmakers on Wednesday passed – over the objections of the NRA – the first successful gun control measure in that state in 20 years. The law, if signed by the governor, would raise the minimum age for gun purchases from 18 to 21, create a three-day waiting period for gun purchases and increase funding for school security.
These brave and assertive Parkland students have awakened adults from their acceptance of gun carnage. They have reminded us that gun rights are not ultimate rights. That allowing easy access to guns collides with the rights of others to go without fear to school – or to a church (Sutherland Springs, Texas), a movie (Aurora, Colo.), a concert (Las Vegas) or a nightclub (Orlando).
But Parkland and other mass shootings are only the volcanic eruptions of a deadly heat that boils beneath everyday America. The United States has more guns than people and a far higher rate of gun deaths than any other developed nation. As noted in a recent New York Times commentary, the gun problem, like the opioid problem, is related to supply. We are awash in guns and awash in gun violence.
North Carolina gun deaths
North Carolina is hit hard by this terrible epidemic. The Charlotte Observer reported this week that in 2016, more people died from guns in North Carolina than any of the previous 35 years. Citing the most recent data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the report said 1,400 people died from guns in the state, a 27 percent increase over the previous year.
Becky Ceartas, executive director of North Carolinians Against Gun Violence, blames the lax laws in a state that has earned a D-minus from the Giffords Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence.
“It’s incredibly troublesome, saddening and frustrating,” Ceartas said of the rising toll from guns in North Carolina. “Because we know there are gun laws out there that have been proven to save lives. ... We do know it’s a public health crisis and it needs to be handled as one.”
In North Carolina, it is not being handled as one. Instead, lawmakers, if anything, are making the crisis worse. The Republican-led General Assembly’s response to gun violence is more guns. A law that took effect in 2013 made it legal to carry a gun in the state’s restaurants, bars, parks, public schools and state universities.
President Trump argues that teachers should be armed. But teachers, who know more about schools than the president, roundly reject that idea. An Elon University/News & Observer/Charlotte Observer poll of North Carolina teachers found 78 percent think arming teachers is a bad idea. If allowed to carry guns into their schools, 74 percent of teachers said they wouldn’t. Most teachers (68 percent) said arming teachers would make it more likely that guns would fall into the wrong hands.
Reducing the toll
No, more guns are not the answer. The answer, to borrow a term from the Second Amendment, is to make access to guns “well regulated.” Changes that would serve that goal include these:
• Require universal criminal and mental health background checks for any gun purchase, including guns sold at gun shows. A background check and gun licensing law passed in Connecticut after Sandy Hook was followed by a 40 percent drop in gun homicides and a 15 percent reduction in gun suicides.
• Impose a permanent ban on the private sale of assault-style rifles.
• Raise the age requirement for all gun and rifle purchases to 21, limit the size of ammunition clips and ban the private sale of hollow-tip, armor-piercing bullets.
• Pass in a “red flag” law proposed by state Rep. Marcia Morey, a former judge, that would allow authorities in North Carolina to remove guns from people found to be a danger to themselves or others.
• Increase spending on mental health services (suicide is the leading cause of gun deaths) and increase the number of nurses and counselors in public schools.
• Reduce the supply of guns by initiating a national buyback of firearms as was done in Australia.
• Repeal the legal provision that effectively bars the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention from researching gun violence.
Beyond all these changes, the Supreme Court must clarify the meaning and identify the limits of the Second Amendment. The right to bear arms is in the Constitution, but it is one right among many in a founding document that seeks above all else to “insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general Welfare and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity.”
Clearly the framers of the Constitution and the authors of the Second Amendment did not intend to secure those blessings by having more than 33,000 Americans die annually from gun violence – with more than 12,000 of those deaths homicides.
It’s up to us, the survivors, to secure those blessings now.